Simply put, Functional Medicine (or FM, a.k.a root cause medicine) looks at your lifestyle and environment to find the root causes of your conditions and addresses any imbalances to help restore health and vitality.
According to the Institute of Functional Medicine (or IFM), Functional Medicine…
- Is a personalized, systems-oriented model that empowers patients and practitioners to achieve the highest expression of health by working in collaboration to address the underlying causes of disease.
- Incorporates the latest in genetic science, systems biology, and understanding of how environmental and lifestyle factors influence the emergence and progression of disease.
- Enables physicians and other health professionals to practice proactive, predictive, personalized medicine and empowers patients to take an active role in their own health.
Okaaay… So, what does that all mean?
What I learned in med school was an organ systems approach: cardiology focused on studying the heart and blood vessels; gastroenterology focused on the stomach, intestines and other organs of the digestive tract; endocrinology focused on issues of the hormonal system like diabetes and thyroid problems, and so on. This approach reduces the whole to its component parts, fragmenting them, resulting in an incomplete picture of one’s health.
A systems-oriented model is the opposite: it is based on the understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This systems biology approach acknowledges that the body is a set of complex networks — interacting with one another on many levels, in many ways — where a change in one system can affect several others and these changes spread out in a ripple effect. From this perspective, there are many possible starting points to develop a chronic condition or disease and thus several gateways to reverse or heal it. (Learn more here.)
Addresses the underlying causes of disease
Let’s say you tripped, fell, and got an bad wound on your knee. And let’s say you weren’t able to clean it well enough so that small bits of dirt and gravel remained embedded in the flesh. After a few days the wound became red, swollen, painful, and developed pus. Because you also started having high fevers you came to me for a check-up. So I gave you paracetamol for the symptoms of fever and pain, antibiotics for the infected wound, and sent you home. What do you think would happen? Your symptoms would subside every time you took the medicine, but they’d keep coming back (and you’d just keep taking meds). Meanwhile your wound would get better, but slowly and not completely. As long as the root cause of the infection remains ignored — the bits of dirt and gravel stuck in there — the wound wouldn’t heal properly and could get recurrent infections. And yet if, at the start, the wound was cleaned thoroughly and no dirt was left in the flesh, then it would have healed by itself without developing an infection and the paracetamol and antibiotic would not have been needed at all.
It’s the same for most chronic, lifestyle diseases: the symptoms get treated or managed, but the root causes are essentially ignored. (So in diabetes the symptom is high blood sugar and medicines are given to lower that, period. The person just keeps taking them and every few years the dose in increased, or another medicine is added, then eventually they’re given insulin, and if they’re lucky complications will never happen or will be delayed for many, many years, or will only be mild.) Nakakahinayang, because by addressing the root causes chronic conditions can actually improve and even resolve.
Environmental & Lifestyle Factors
The idea that our genes alone dictate both our health and our diseases has been debunked. Research and discoveries in epigenetics show that our environment greatly influences our genes. To borrow an analogy I’ve repeatedly encountered, you can think of it like this: if illness or disease were a gun, then genes are the loaded bullets, and the environment is the gunman. As long as the gunman doesn’t pull that trigger, the gun doesn’t fire and you’re safe. But if the gunman is trigger happy then that gun will keep on firing and you’re screwed.
Given the analogy above and assuming you don’t want that gun to fire, wouldn’t you want to keep the gunman happy instead of allowing him to get pissed off? If you want to keep the gunman happy, wouldn’t it be great to know how to do that? FM helps you answer that question. (And remember, what you have to do may be either only slightly different or completely opposite of what your best friend or your boss or some other random stranger would have to do to keep their gunman happy.)
The understanding of the body as a complex system of networks, the knowledge about the root causes of health and disease, and the appreciation that environment and lifestyle have crucial effects on those root causes all together allow us to predict where on the health spectrum you will likely end up. And if you don’t like the prediction, then you can take steps to prevent it and make sure that your future health is as good as, if not better, than your health today.
Every single one of us is unique. There are general principles that apply to everyone but there will always, always be something different for each person. Personalized medicine takes this uniqueness into account when looking at an individual. No one is exactly the same, so treatments shouldn’t be exactly the same either (and I don’t just mean medication dosing).
Participatory (empowers patients to take an active role in their own health)
In FM, the therapeutic partnership between the doctor and patient is exactly that: a partnership. It acknowledges that the patient’s input about his condition and its treatment is as important as the doctor’s input. There is accountability on both sides: the doctor gives guidance and direction, but the patient has the ultimate responsibility for his health.